Absent-Minded Killers

As a species, human beings have a major self-control problem. We humans are now so aggressively fishing, hunting, logging, and growing crops in all parts of the world that we are literally chasing other species off the planet. Our intense desire to take all that we can from nature leaves precious little for other forms of life.

In 1992, when the world’s governments first promised to address man-made global warming, they also vowed to head off the human-induced extinction of other species. The Convention on Biological Diversity, agreed at the Rio Earth Summit, established that “biological diversity is a common concern of humanity.” The signatories agreed to conserve biological diversity, by saving species and their habitats, and to use biological resources (e.g., forests) in a sustainable manner. In 2002, the treaty’s signatories went further, committing to “a significant reduction in the current rate of biodiversity loss” by 2010.

Unfortunately, like so many other international agreements, the Convention on Biological Diversity remains essentially unknown, un-championed, and unfulfilled. That neglect is a human tragedy. For a very low cash outlay – and perhaps none at all on balance – we could conserve nature and thus protect the basis of our own lives and livelihoods. We kill other species not because we must, but because we are too negligent to do otherwise.

Consider a couple of notorious examples. Some rich countries, such as Spain, Portugal, Australia, and New Zealand, have fishing fleets that engage in so-called “bottom trawling.” Bottom trawlers drag heavy nets over the ocean bottom, destroying magnificent, unexplored, and endangered marine species in the process. Complex and unique ecologies, most notably underground volcanoes known as seamounts, are ripped to shreds, because bottom trawling is the “low cost” way to catch a few deep sea fish species. One of these species, orange roughy, has been caught commercially for only around a quarter-century, but already is being fished to the point of collapse.

Likewise, in many parts of the world, tropical rainforest is being cleared for pasture land and food crops. The result is massive loss of habitat and destruction of species, yielding a tiny economic benefit at a huge social cost. After cutting down a swath of rainforest, soils are often quickly leached of their nutrients so that they cannot sustain crops or nutritious grasses for livestock. As a result, the new pasture land or farmland is soon abandoned, with no prospect for regeneration of the original forest and its unique ecosystems.

Because these activities’ costs are so high and their benefits so low, stopping them would be easy. Bottom trawling should simply be outlawed; it would be simple and inexpensive to compensate the fishing industry during a transition to other activities. Forest clearing, on the other hand, is probably best stopped by economic incentives, perhaps combined with regulatory limits. Simply restricting the practice of land clearing probably would not work, since farm families and communities would face a strong temptation to evade legal limits. On the other hand, financial incentives would probably succeed, because cutting down forest to create pastureland is not profitable enough to induce farmers to forego payments for protecting the land.

Many rainforest countries have united in recent years to suggest the establishment of a rainforest conservation fund by the rich countries, to pay impoverished small farmers a small amount of money to preserve the forest. A well-designed fund would slow or stop deforestation, preserve biodiversity, and reduce emissions of carbon dioxide the burning of cleared forests. At the same time, small farmers would receive a steady flow of income, which they could use for micro-investments to improve their household’s wealth, education, and health.

Aside from banning bottom trawling and establishing a global fund for avoided deforestation, we should designate a global network of protected marine areas, in which fishing, boating, polluting, dredging, drilling, and other damaging activities would be prohibited. Such areas not only permit the regeneration of species, but also provide ecological benefits that spill over to neighboring unprotected areas.

We also need a regular scientific process to present the world with the evidence on species abundance and extinction, just as we now have such a process for climate change. Politicians don’t listen very well to individual scientists, but they are forced to listen when hundreds of scientists speak with a united voice.

Finally, the world should negotiate a new framework no later than 2010 to slow human-induced climate change. There can be little doubt that climate change poses one of the greatest risks to species’ viability. As the planet warms, and rain and storm patterns change dramatically, many species will find themselves in climate zones that no longer support their survival. Some can migrate, but others (such as polar bears) are likely to be driven to extinction unless we take decisive action to head off climate change.

These measures are achievable by 2010. They are affordable, and in each case would ultimately deliver large net benefits. Most importantly, they would allow us to follow through on a global promise. It is too painful to believe that humanity would destroy millions of other species – and jeopardize our own future – in a fit of absent-mindedness.